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Percy Bysshe Shelley's "On Death"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Introduction and Text of "On Death"

As one of the most noted poets of the Romantic movement, Percy Bysshe Shelley focused much of his poetry on spiritually inspired topics. With a keen eye to the possibilities of life after death, the speaker in Shelley's "On Death" dramatizes a quotation from the King James Version of the Bible.

The full quotation from Ecclesiastes 9:10 is, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might, for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave whither thou goest."

Shelley's speaker is focusing on the final clause of the quotation to offer a little drama that may brighten the human mind's natural tendency to be darkened by the notion of losing all those functions.

On Death

The pale, the cold, and the moony smile
Which the meteor beam of a starless night
Sheds on a lonely and sea-girt isle,
Ere the dawning of morn's undoubted light,
Is the flame of life so fickle and wan
That flits round our steps till their strength is gone.

O man! hold thee on in courage of soul
Through the stormy shades of thy wordly way,
And the billows of clouds that around thee roll
Shall sleep in the light of a wondrous day,
Where hell and heaven shall leave thee free
To the universe of destiny.

This world is the nurse of all we know,
This world is the mother of all we feel,
And the coming of death is a fearful blow
To a brain unencompass'd by nerves of steel:
When all that we know, or feel, or see,
Shall pass like an unreal mystery.

The secret things of the grave are there,
Where all but this frame must surely be,
Though the fine-wrought eye and the wondrous ear
No longer will live, to hear or to see
All that is great and all that is strange
In the boundless realm of unending change.

Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?
Who lifteth the veil of what is to come?
Who painteth the shadows that are beneath
The wide-winding caves of the peopled tomb?
Or uniteth the hopes of what shall be
With the fears and the love for that which we see?

Reading of "On Death"

Commentary

The speaker dramatizes the report offered in Ecclesiastes 9:10.

First Stanza: The Lonely Island

The pale, the cold, and the moony smile
Which the meteor beam of a starless night
Sheds on a lonely and sea-girt isle,
Ere the dawning of morn's undoubted light,
Is the flame of life so fickle and wan
That flits round our steps till their strength is gone.

The speaker in Shelley's "On Death" is motivated to dramatize his response by the Ecclesiastic quotation, "There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest."

The speaker begins by likening the human sense awareness to a pale, cold, moony smile that is fickle and wan and "flits round our steps till their strength is gone." An individual, according to this speaker, is like an island with the moon shining on it. Though it is surrounded by the sea, yet is it lonely and desolate.

Second Stanza: On Not Loving Hope

O man! hold thee on in courage of soul
Through the stormy shades of thy wordly way,
And the billows of clouds that around thee roll
Shall sleep in the light of a wondrous day,
Where hell and heaven shall leave thee free
To the universe of destiny.

The speaker then commands humanity to buck up and not lose hope that he can make his life useful. Despite the coming of the grave and "the billows of clouds that around thee roll," the individual who remains courageous in spirit can rest easily. The courageous individual need not bend his life to the dictates of a fanciful Hell and Heaven but keep his mind open to "the universe of destiny."

Third Stanza: A Final Reward

This world is the nurse of all we know,
This world is the mother of all we feel,
And the coming of death is a fearful blow
To a brain unencompass'd by nerves of steel:
When all that we know, or feel, or see,
Shall pass like an unreal mystery.

The nurturing, mothering world offers death as an ostensible final reward and death is "a fearful blow." But that is true only of a mind that allows itself to absorb only the physical level of reality. The speaker implies that a physical reality only is impossible, because what the senses detect is something that will "pass like an unreal mystery."

Fourth Stanza: Of Body Only

The secret things of the grave are there,
Where all but this frame must surely be,
Though the fine-wrought eye and the wondrous ear
No longer will live, to hear or to see
All that is great and all that is strange
In the boundless realm of unending change.

Even though the human body will lose its "fine-wrought eye and wondrous ear" and all other senses, all the greatness of the soul waits in a "boundless realm of unending change." Death might seem to stop the spirit, but it only stops the body of sense-awareness, allowing a higher level of awareness to be engaged.

Fifth Stanza: Three Realms

Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?
Who lifteth the veil of what is to come?
Who painteth the shadows that are beneath
The wide-winding caves of the peopled tomb?
Or uniteth the hopes of what shall be
With the fears and the love for that which we see?

The speaker concludes with a series of questions that all lead the reader to one answer: each human soul is the entity responsible for all the levels of information on the three realms of physical, astral, and causal. When the individual unites with that soul or flame of life, s/he also unites with "the hopes of what shall be / With the fears and the love for that which we see." What we see, that is, perceive with the senses, is but a shadow veil of what waits after soul- awareness.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes